Election Section

Commentary: Little Rock Redux By KATHERINE HAYNES SANSTAD

Friday August 05, 2005

As I envision my young, African-American, Jewish sons walking past the anti-Beth El signs on Oxford Street to enter their new synagogue, I cannot help but think about the Civil Rights Movement and all the children and young adults who had to be taught to hold their heads high and bravely go where they were so clearly unwanted. Our Beth El children will have to do the same. 

The hostility of the opposition to Congregation Beth El’s three-block move into a new building on the long-abandoned property at 1301 Oxford St. is extreme, even by Berkeley standards. It is a pitched battle in which neighbors don’t want fellow Berkeley citizens to park on public streets in accordance with existing parking regulations. It is a campaign complete with a proliferation of signs on Oxford and Spruce Street lawns. Obviously those signs are meant to foment public opinion against our 60-year-old North Berkeley institution, but they have an additional, vulnerable audience: The children and youth of Congregation Beth El.  

For years, Congregation Beth El has run a nursery school, a religious school for elementary and middle school kids, and one of the East Bay’s most beloved camps, Camp Kee Tov, in addition to hosting the Midrasha high school program. Arguably the biggest users of Beth El are not the people who come to services at all, but rather the youth we attempt to steer toward an adult life of community involvement and social justice. Ironically, our North Berkeley neighborhood is giving them an object lesson in rising above public hostility. 

As an African American Jew, Beth El congregant, and mother of two young sons, I am disheartened that I will have to teach my children the same hard lessons my grandmother had to teach my now 80-year-old mother. My mother went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The ride from St. Louis, MO, required her to move to the back of the train to the Colored cars under Jim Crow. Frankly, there were many places my mother was not wanted in both St. Louis and Nashville. My grandmother taught her to hold her head up high, be respectful, and be proud of who she was.  

What will I tell my sons in Berkeley in 2005 as they face the hostility of our North Berkeley neighbors? “You have a right to be here. Our congregants have worked long and hard and negotiated in good faith with the neighbors. We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore Codornices Creek and to build the first geothermal facility in Berkeley. We have rejuvenated land that had lain unkempt since well before I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the late ‘70s. We have built in full accord with zoning regulations and struggled to satisfy requirements that no other institution in Berkeley has had to meet. We have significantly reduced our impact on parking in the neighborhood by providing 31 on-site spaces, a drive-through, and alternate parking options. And yes, we are still not wanted, have not been wanted for 10 years.”  

I will tell them, “Hold your heads up high and meet their gaze. Know that you are part of a 60-year-old congregation, born of this neighborhood, that sent delegations to march with Rev. Martin Luther King, that feeds the hungry, that builds bridges among Berkeley’s religious communities, that has educated three generations of youth, that embraces diversity. And please, be especially polite to those who are acting so ugly to you. Be undaunted.” 

Some may say, “But this is different. We are not attacking your children, we are attacking Beth El.” I ask you what is Beth El? The building is not Beth El; the cars are not Beth El; traffic is not Beth El. People are Beth El. And we are the very old and very young and every age in between. We are white, and yellow, and brown. We are gay and straight. We are taxpayers and residents and voters. We are business owners and public servants. I am Beth El. My children are Beth El. Those signs need no ethnic epithets to scream “We don’t want you here!” Our children can read. Our children know. 

Although my husband and I never dreamed that we would be giving our children the same instructions in Berkeley, Calif., in 2005 that parents gave their teenagers in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, we are thankful that we have elders among the Congregation Beth El community who opened hostile communities to Jews and African Americans and Asians and Latinos across the United States—elders who have consistently fought for justice for all and prevailed. My sons come from and live among people who know how to persevere, to survive, and to thrive.  

My younger son has two favorite bedtime songs. One is a contemporary Hebrew call for peace, and the other is “We Shall Overcome.” Both yearn for shalom/peace some day. I hope that that day will come soon for us and for our neighbors, but particularly for our children.  


Katherine Haynes Sanstad is a member of Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, where she serves as a member of the board of directors and as the congregation's first vice president.